An extract from ‘The Great North American: a Diary From The Road‘ on this International Stammering Awareness Day

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We park right outside the venue – Boot & Saddle – and meet Amy behind the bar and Steve the sound engineer. It’s a great little room. Compact, well-lit, good PA. George sets up and I go get some tips from Amy about where to get pizza, and head out on this mission. All I have left on my North American Junk Food list is pizza, a milkshake, a Dr. Pepper and a box of Junior Mints. And just twenty-six hours left to tick them off.

I have what’s been diagnosed by a speech therapist as a ‘severe covert stammer‘ – often referred to as ‘interiorised‘,  which means you don’t hear it in the usual s-s-s-stuttering way, because I’ve spent my life hiding it. It manifests itself in other audible ways though, which, if you met me, you might put down to my accent, or my talking quickly, or you just not catching what I’ve said. I like talking, and do a lot of it, though in every sentence there will be something I find difficult to say, so I may need to swap a word out, or switch the syntax, or in some way distract you – audibly or physically – from what I’m failing to articulate, which involves always thinking a few words ahead so I can make changes before I get there, like swerving to avoid something in the road.

I might intentionally mumble a word because I just can’t say it, and then quickly move on to the next ones, hoping that they will give you enough information to allow you to piece together the crux of the meaning. In loud environments I might intentionally shout gibberish in your ear as a way of ‘breaking the dam’, figuring you’ll just think you couldn’t hear me over the music, say, which gets my mouth moving, making it easier to get the sentence out second time around. I also swear more than most, partly because, for example, it’s easier to put what’s called a ‘hard onset’ before a word I can’t say. The ‘k’ in ‘fuck’ is a useful tool in that regard. And in a revelation that may seem counterintuitive, it’s actually more difficult to speak when I’m back home in Scotland, because there I can’t really get away with altering my dialect (not my accent; that’s a constant) without people accusing me of “talking posh”, so back there I say “ah dinnae ken” instead of “I don’t know”, whereas everywhere else in the world I can use phrases in both dialects with my accent remaining intact. Tiredness, anxiety, the affect some foods have on me and even my posture can all cause problems. In extreme cases – if I need to talk for extended periods without rest, or if it’s very cold – my mouth stops working. It starts with a tingling sensation around my right eye, spreads down the side of my face and envelops my whole face, until the muscles around my jaw seize up and my lips become numb, as your hand does if you sit on it for a few minutes.

Some of the speech issues are context-based. I can say “toilet” all day without a problem, but if I walk into a bar or cafe and and try and say “Can I use your toilet please?”, I can’t say it. I just don’t have the ability to control that particular group of words in that order. They run away from me. I can’t ‘just slow down’, I can’t just ‘take a breath’. The ability to deliver the sentence is as elusive to me as quantum mechanics. It’s easier in North America. I can just say “restroom” or “bathroom”. No problem with that. But not “traditional”. Can’t say it under any circumstances.

Years ago, when I struggled far more with it than I do now, I’ve seen me walking six miles home because I wasn’t able to board a nightbus and say to the driver “Fifty pence please”, or any other variation of any other words that would allow me to illuminate my destination.

A further complication is when speaking to someone who already has problems understanding me. I get more nervous with the effort finally  – finally! – getting this person to get what I’m saying the first time, and since they also approach the conversation assuming they won’t understand me, they just cut to the chase and ask me to repeat myself (0r worse; ask someone else what I just said), often before I’ve even finished the sentence. For someone who (when tour managing) has a job that needs clear communication, it can be tiring and disheartening.

Part of the reason I took up lecturing was to help get all this out in the open. And it’s why I like writing more than talking; I’ve ten conduits to write through, only one to use when I talk. On top of all this I have conductive hearing in my right ear, which basically means it’s a bit dull on that side, and since I’m not in my twenties anymore, the left ear no longer compensates so, in loud places, hearing myself or you can be tricky, which impacts on the confidence I have in my speech, which in turns increases the frequency of my stammer.

When I do feel confident, this brings its own problems: I feel good about speaking and find myself over-speaking, and as someone who talks a lot, it’s not great to add talking more on top of that. It seems like I’m domineering  in a conversation when really I’m just amazed I’m able to have one fluently, and so I get carried away with enthusiasm. That it turn can lead me to say stupid things.

And the reason I’m telling you all of this is to try and explain why I walked into a pizza joint to buy three single slices, but walked out with four, and one whole pizza…